30 years ago, a boy named Link walked upon the unknown country of Hyrule. Armed with nothing but an 8-bit sword and creative thinking, it was up to Link (the player) to determine how to proceed through the monster-infested world. It was a simple yet exciting premise, and one that would continue through an epic lineage of “elf-people” in tight green clothing.
The Legend of Zelda was famously born from creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s memories of exploring the wilderness as a child. In 1986, the limitations of the Nintendo Entertainment System made for little hand-holding. There was no room for text, tutorials, and other helpful guides; the first room allows the player to head in any of the four cardinal directions!
Many players saw this as a blessing. The cartridge space required that you craft your own story. It required that you become the Hero of Time on your own terms.
As technology improved, over-bearing tutorials and scripted events throttled unique player experiences. In three dimensions, the modern “Zelda formula” was introduced. Ocarina of Time’s Z-Targeting system became the perspective of a new adventure in Hylian clothing, bogged down by lengthy introductions and overdone guidance.
But many would argue that an original Zelda formula, filled with free-will and lonesome adventure, was snuffed out for decades in the process.
Enter “Breath of the Wild”
“Breath of the Wild” is Nintendo’s answer to the request of long-time Zelda fans, who wanted to tell their own stories again.
A lot has been said of the hundreds of hours of gameplay and open world structure of “Breath of the Wild”, as well as just how HUGE the map of Hyrule is. The purpose of this review is not to walk down these trodden roads, but rather to explore what makes the world of “Breath of the Wild” so special.
The “open” world of a new Hyrule
There is a pissing contest between blockbuster games right now. Whether it be “Grand Theft Auto V,” “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” or even recent releases like “Horizon: Zero Dawn,” studio marketing teams have the urge to validate their game with the title of “biggest [insert thing] ever.”
The above examples are all massive titles, worthy of purchase. Similarly, the map of “Breath of the Wild” is big enough to provide for hundreds of hours of gameplay. It’s that simple.
What’s harder to quantify is what makes the new Zelda so great and different. What elevates this post-apocalyptic Hyrule for me, over the worlds of Skyrim, Liberty City, etc., is the sense of wonder around every corner. Unlike any other fictional space, I found myself squirreling from carrot-on-a-stick to carrot-on-a-stick. On multiple days of play, I also found my stomach growling, as I would miss entire meals, engrossed in the fascinating world that had been built.
Learn from your peers
Let’s be clear. “Breath of the Wild” owes its existence to a number of previously successful open world games:
- Assassin’s Creed – Tower climbing / vantage points / stealth
- Skyrim – Waypoints / cooking / crafting
- Demon’s Souls – campfires / difficult enemy encounters
- Far Cry – Animal interaction / outdoor traversal
- Just Cause – Three-axis traversal
Nintendo is traditionally a very stubborn company when it comes to gameplay systems. But in the case of “Breath of the Wild” and the recently released Super Mario Odyssey, Nintendo is finally starting to fuse modern game concepts with their core values. The systems of the current landscape meet the Nintendo mantra…
Build unlimited possibilities on top of simple mechanics.
Without the proof of concepts from the other games, the systems in Zelda would just not work. Almost every core gameplay mechanic is snatched from another series, with the exception of the combat, which is decidedly “Zelda.”
The healthy borrowing of good ideas means that “Breath of the Wild” never feels totally new. That being said, Nintendo nailed it on their first try and do small things to push each concept forward. Referencing the above list, you can…
- … choose the way you want to approach climbing objects and combat.
- … fill your map with various color blips and icons to denote objects you care about and return to them later on.
- … create pseudo-campfires anywhere in the world with the right equipment.
- … interact with animals and creates in a myriad of ways.
- … climb just about any object in the entire game.
Give the game the “Nintendo” treatment
Anyone building a game need not look further than the Mario series for game design principles.
Here, you are given a small toolset of jumps and attacks, yet the situations the diverse level provide keep the player guessing and experimenting. The player gets a firm handle on the controls, allowing them to adapt to the unique challenges of a level or boss in their own way.
Zelda struggled with this for the past 20 years, as each title followed the same regimented approach. Traveling to the next dungeon, getting the next dungeon item, and using it to beat the next boss repeated endlessly. No matter how strong the design of a particular dungeon or item, there was a feeling of repetition that limited enjoyment and excitement.
With “Breath of the Wild,” Zelda feels more “Mario” than “Zelda.”
The Great Plateau
“The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” gives you the toolset through a massive opening area known as The Great Plateau. I won’t soon forget my experience in this opening area.
After emerging from a cave with amnesia, Link finds himself looking over a sprawling world, filled with forests, destroyed buildings, and bodies of water. The opening zone is probably the size of most entire Zelda games, but is but a tiny fraction of the overworld. Once I filled out the map, I could barely find the place!
The Great Plateau gradually but deftly exposes the player to every mechanic and item that they will get in the entire game. After spending a couple of hours in this area, you will have been forced accidentally into many of the games fun tricks and all of the required items.
Telling your own story
From the Great Plateau, the game opens up completely, as does the final objective — defeat Ganon and save Hyrule.
Rather than follow the typical cycle of dungeon, item, boss, repeat, the player can do anything they would like in getting to the boss. There are dungeons to complete, sure. But there are also deserts, swamps, mountains, caves, ruins, towns, jungles, forests, lakes, and other mysteries to explore.
There is a story to tell. At the risk of sounding schlocky, The Great Plateau is the Table of Contents, Ganon is the Epilogue, and everything in the middle is a blank canvas of user-determined paths and stories. The flexibility to the player is unparalleled in any other gaming experience and special.
Exploring the map of “Breath of the Wild”
I cannot stress enough that YouTube videos and Reddit boards are this game’s poison. Avoiding spoilers and game scenarios prior to play is highly recommended. “Breath of the Wild” is all about telling your own story, and you can’t do that if someone tells it for you.
I won’t spoil anything either, but trust me that experimentation and exploration will lead to some of the most fist-pumping, jaw-dropping sequences you have ever experienced. YOU did that thing, and you can’t believe it worked.
Once you are finished with the game, I invite you to head to YouTube, where you will see that your accomplishments barely scratch the surface to what is possible.
What I didn’t like
If it sounds like there is nothing wrong with the game, that’s not true. Many weapons break practically as soon as they are found. Rain/thunder storms occur too frequently when considering their impact to exploration. The English voice acting in the sparse number of cutscenes are laughably bad. There are plenty of frame rate drops, particularly when in the game’s hub towns.
All that being said, this is a review after all, and “Breath of the Wild” is a must own if you have either a Nintendo WiiU or a Switch. There simply has not been a better open world game released, maybe ever. That sounds lofty, but, to this grizzled gamer, I hadn’t had so much fun exploring and playing a game in years.
If you like open-ended games, this is a must buy. If you don’t like the genre, “Breath of the Wild” might surprise you. Where many open games have overcomplicated systems that serve one purpose, this one has fewer and easier systems that give way to endless options and variety.
And if you are an original Zelda purist, you can rest easy, knowing that a 3D Zelda has finally delivered on the promises of 1987. 🙂 🙂 🙂
Switch versus Wii U
While this was covered previously, I did want to mention that you can choose to buy Breath of the Wild for the Wii U and Switch. Additionally, I stayed true to my word and bought this game for the Wii U, as opposed to buying a Switch.
The results are fine.
The Wii U version does not run at as high a resolution and likely has more frame drops than the Switch counterpart. I hear that the Switch television experience has the same issues, though the handheld mode is free of most framerate problems, since it outputs at a lower resolution than the Switch television version, but the same resolution as the Wii U version (720p).
It’s also a lot cheaper to buy the game for the Wii U, if money is an object.